Hilary Leichter speaks with Annie DeWitt about the consequences of observation, the brutality of becoming, and Bob Ross's Happy Trees.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Baquing
By Hilary Leichter
In Annie DeWitt’s White Nights in Split Town City, we are thrown into the world of Jean, an eleven year old on the brink. The writing itself is on the brink, too. Sentences tumble forward as if off a precipice. Reading DeWitt is like catching a dancer mid-flight. In her rendering of rural New England, summer is a threat and girls are hovering near trouble and mothers pick up and leave. The horses are sick, and a queasy danger permeates the prose. Summer is one long, unavoidable day, the nights as white as the mornings.
“You don’t look at people like that,” Jean’s mother says of her daughter’s open, curious gaze. But DeWitt does look at people like that. She dares to depict bodies in motion, hurtling towards certain peril. I was reminded of Degas’ “little opera rats,” his ballerinas, and his horses, the brutal strain of existence on legs, arms, necks. The poses we take and the yearning, the way we stretch and reach for things unseen. Degas famously said, “I have perhaps too often considered woman as an animal.” In White Nights, DeWitt considers the girl, the beast, the beauty and brutality of becoming.
— Hilary Leichter for Guernica Magazine
Guernica: Jean, the protagonist, hears her mother describe “the wayside of things”—“the wayside of life.” Would you say you’re interested in building fiction that lands on the wayside? How does one get there, and what should we ideally find, once we do?
Annie DeWitt: I’ve always been interested in fiction that takes place in small towns. Flannery O’Connor, Barry Hannah. Faulkner’s Outer Dark, which writer Victoria Redel introduced me to years ago, is one of my favorite short novellas. To me these places are open canvases. They invite a specific kind of brush stroke, one which allows aspects like the weather, dialect, landscape, to become characters. My sense of language is born there as I grew up there, on a small rural road in Massachusetts. The last unpaved road in the town. The school bus was’t even required to fetch us. It was a Dead End, so technically the bus couldn’t drive cup the road as it couldn’t turn around. If that’s not a metaphor for a place left to the wayside, I’m not sure what is.
The other day I had a revelation. There’s an inn just down Route 28 upstate where I now live that I discovered on a detour. I was barreling around the little turn in my old black Volkswagen and saw a wooden sign hanging by the side of a short driveway. The Weyside Inn. I almost drove off the road when I saw it. This was far after I’d written the book and it had already gone to print. I felt as though someone had lifted a page from my novel and painted this old white farm house on the side of the road, just as I’d imagined it. Only the spelling was slightly different. I want to stop in one day—maybe spend a night—and discover what it is to go back to this place. I’m almost afraid I’ll run into one of the characters from White Nights there, if I do. The facsimile of this home is that lifelike in my imagination.
I think there is a sense of authority that I’ve always felt you discover in these places. You find people who have been pushed outside of the current of life—what city people might call “progress”—for one reason or another—age, illness, mental health, profession, etc. You find old barns strewn with machinery that’s rusting in a glen and now covered in hordes of stray cats, falling down trailers, lawns covered in children’s bikes who have long since grown up and left the house, American flags hanging from windows, small cafes where you can still get breakfast for $1.50. I walked into a Stewarts a few towns over the other day and it said pizza for $3.50. I thought they meant per slice. It turns out, that’s the cost of the whole pie.
There’s a sense of nostalgia to these places—a feeling of stepping back in time. For example, the house I currently live in—we don’t have cell service. I had to install a landline in the kitchen, just an emergency dial tone in case we need to call out. The internet is satellite. It doesn’t work when it rains or snows. We don’t have television. We have to download “tokens” to stream television shows off the internet. One token costs 10$. That will usually get you a few episodes.
Guernica: I felt a bit of Yoknapatawpha County in your rendering of upstate New York. Were you thinking about Faulkner at all when writing White Nights? Were you thinking about anyone else? There is both sound and fury in these pages, and in Jean, I saw the makings of a modern Caddy.
Annie DeWitt: Thank you, Hilary. I can’t think of a greater compliment. I am deeply touched that you say that. I wish I could claim that to be true. To me, Faulkner is a genius. As I Lay Dying is a modern masterpiece—it doesn’t age. The use of the various voices of that family, the creation of internal tensions, the names of things, the simplicity of their mission to bury the body. To me, that’s the perfect novel. It’s unbeatable.
His Sound and The Fury is actually one I haven’t read. Though I did pick up a copy of his little known book November from a used book shop on the Upper West Side back when I lived in the city and had first started this book. An old hardcover with a beautiful tattered cover. Yellow with Red Script. It’s a book about childhood in a rural place. My distinct impression is that Faulkner was deeply moved by place. In many ways it defined him and his characters. The limits of things. What people could bear to encounter in a lifetime. To me, those are things he’s always wrestling with. He has a way of seeing the world that is uniquely his own. I think it’s about visuality. When I read his words I think of that title of that Bergman movie—Through A Glass Darkly. Faulkner’s characters seem to exist at a slant—as though the glass we are looking at them through is slightly warped. Maybe that’s what I meant when I said Fender “leaned into the wind like it alone could hold him up.” There’s a darkness to the backdrop of Faulkner’s characters which seems to motivate them—as though the whole book is backlit, waiting for a sense of witness to come into the light.
The book actually takes place in rural New England—though a lot of people mistake it for upstate New York, where I now reside. To me, this kind of elision is necessary. I wanted the book to embody any rural town in America. I think there’s always been a sense that these rural landscapes and rural voices somehow belong to the south. That rural writers only come from Appalachia or south of the Mason Dixon. What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is plenty of rural poverty everywhere—New England included. Just drive through Vermont or New Hampshire or Maine. I wanted White Nights to speak to everyone living in these places—in any rural American town, mostly because I think folks’ experiences of these places are very similar.
Guernica: I was very much taken with the way images expand, evolve, and conceal themselves throughout the book. We hear Jean’s younger sister Birdie refer to Gorbachev as “The Big Red Splot,” and only sentences later, her mother hangs a photo over the television: “The Pale Blue Dot.” And these dots and splots reveal themselves throughout—a red stain in a pair of underwear, a bedsore, a nipple. How does this gymnastic application of paint arrive in your writing? Is it something that you consider when you set out to describe a world?
Annie DeWitt: Well, I did grow up watching Bob Ross. To me, he was like a second father. My Dad and I would sometimes watch the show and my Dad would set up an easel in the living room and paint. Ross’s “happy trees” always astounded me – the way he could create a whole horizon – a coniferous forest – just by drawing dotting the edge of his brush onto the canvas and then defining the branches and vertical trunks with the edge of his scraper. Suddenly, as he sketched in the trunks, you saw the forest emerge from this unmoored mass of green. You can stream all the old episodes online now. I found them when I was living in Woodstock last year. I still get a kick out of it. (And of course, his hair alone and the way he talks to his mother as he paints, is worth watching.) Though, I don’t know that I consider this when I write.
I have no idea where these blotches or dots, as you say, come from. What I can say is that I worked in a small psychiatric facility for children once. The practitioner there had invented a way of codifying children’s visuality. What he called “scanning.” He would hang a life-sized piece of paper the size of the child’s body on a wall in front of the child and ask them to just connect the circles. The paper would be covered with all kind of competing stimuli—other shapes, stars, squares, rectangles, etc. This was all timed. The kid had a certain number of minutes to do it. The idea was that the paper represented the way the child saw the world and deciphered information. What emerged was fascinating. Some kids would focus on one corner of the paper and connect every circle within a five inch radius—obsessively, but leaving out all the other circles on the page—these were called “sharpeners.” The idea was that they heighten information. Other kids would start with a circle way up in the upper right hand corner and then drawn a long line down to the little circle way at the bottom of the page near their foot—skipping all the other circles in between. These were called “scanners.” The idea being that these kids didn’t seem detail but rather scanned the whole scene—perhaps as a way of leveling down emotion, flattening stimuli, or protecting themselves. I have no idea which category I fall into, but I always found this interesting.
Guernica: Towards the end of the novel, Jean considers the consequences of observation: “Perhaps, i thought, this is what is meant by witness. the act of stealing something private from someone, something they otherwise would never have released into the world.” Does this definition of witnessing at all inform your ideas about writing?
Annie DeWitt: Absolutely. Witness is the hinge I wanted this book to revolve around. The idea that the visual somehow represents information which you store and then have privilege over. What does it mean to know something? Does having seen it count? This comes up most clearly in the scene where Wilson witnesses Jean and Otto in their moment of transgression. Though Wilson may not understand what is transpiring between his father and the young girl, he sees it through the window. He is witness to something. Then, when he dies, Jean wonders—am I free? In a way Wilson’s death frees Jean from being outed—he’s the only one, other than His Helene (who is dying and medicated and can’t really speak coherently)—who witnesses this scene.
There is also the idea of emotional witness and how it shapes people—i.e. Jean witnesses her mother leave. She can only really understand what drives her mother to do so by the images of what she leaves behind—the wicker travel case the mother carries which she had taken to the hospital when Birdie was born, the ashtray sitting between the mother and ray after the “blowing out of the house.” The halogen glow of the gas station sign—Mobil.
And then there is the idea of nation witness – i.e. the mother’s obsession with the news. The Gulf War was the first war which was televised 24/7. It defined CNN as a news network. I became fascinated with an old issue of Time magazine from 1991 which literally showed a full page color glossy of a middle class American family siting in their living room glued to the screen of the television waiting for the bombs to drop over Baghdad. The newscaster who said of the bombs, “It looks like Christmas lights,” has always struck me as the defining American metaphor for this moment.
Guernica: We hear the phrase “untouchable combinations” a couple of times in the text, as a way to describe breeding. Can you talk about how you arrived at that slice of language? It conveys so much about the danger of being human, and how we invent faulty protections to keep ourselves and the people we care about safe.
Annie DeWitt: I don’t know where that phrase came from other than to say that in rural places people talk a lot about breeding. Horses, cows, cats, dogs, etc. The first dog I ever had was a Irish Wolfhound. It was so big I could walk under it. There was a lot of talk about him being a “pure bred.” And yet he had a heart defect and died young. So, breeding has always struck me as akin to gambling. Nowadays, I’m obsessively interested in tracking the bloodlines of thoroughbreds. I grew up riding horses, have since I was a child. As an adult living upstate now, I recently got back into the saddle two years ago on an ex-race horse, a grandson of Secretariat. I now ride a six year old ex-race horse named Never Naked—out of the Storm Cat line, a sire people make a big deal about in eventing. I love these horses. They are bred athletes. Made to run and jump. However, the thing so many people don’t know about horse racing is that these animals are often discarded by the time they turn three or four—sent off to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico. Too slow. Not talented enough, Pulled a ligament. Broke a tendon. The words we associate with horse racing are specifically meant to obscure this reality. American Pharaoh for example, (amazing horse!), but think of his name—it’s meant to be emblazoned on the American imagination, to make people feel like when he runs, he’s running for them .He’s the indefatigable image of America, forever young, forever moving ahead, forever seeking the finish line, always reaching for progress, and yet always a conqueror, a Pharaoh. These horses are only “kept safe,” as you say, as long as they are winning. The minute they fall behind, we want them gone. They are destroyed.
Guernica: You write beautifully about the horses that populate the Bottom Feeder. What was it about their behavior that convinced its way into your story?
Annie DeWitt: What I will say about the behavior of horses is this—they are instinctually intuitive animals. They can smell fear a mile off. To be able to ride, is an act of diplomacy. Some people think it is an act of domination—they are dead wrong. You have to navigate a relationship with a two ton animal who could literally take your life. There’s something thrilling about this. However, there’s also something humbling. In a way it reminds me of those sentences I most enjoy. They barrel forward and yet they are risky. There is a sense that if one word is astray, the whole apparatus could go down on top of you.
Hilary Leichter’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, n+1, Tin House, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from The Edward F. Albee Foundation, the Table 4 Writers Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Annie DeWitt it a fiction writer, essayist, and critic. Her writing has been anthologized and appears widely in Granta, Tin House, The Believer, Guernica, Esquire, BOMB, Electric Literature, Bookforum, NOON, The LA Review of Books, The American Reader, amongst others. Annie holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia School of the Arts where she now teaches. Annie was a Co-Founding Editor of Gigantic, a literary journal of short prose and art. Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City was just released from Tyrant Books in August 2016. Her debut story collection Closest Without Going Over was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy prize. Annie pens an occasional nonfiction column about art, literature, film and criticism for The Believer, called “Various Paradigms.” She was recently recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship.